Subscription Music Services Compared: Part 2

We’ve analyzed the services that sell digital music and are presenting the results in a two part post. This Part 2 compares the subcription music services that let you access an entire music library of up to 2 million songs for a single monthly fee. Part 1, posted last Thursday, focused on the pay-per-download services (such as iTunes).

While the pay per download market is dominated by Apple iTunes and the quasi-legal AllofMP3, the subscription music market is a more level playing field. There are strong product offerings from AOL, Napster, Rhapsody, Virgin and Yahoo.

All of these services offer a music library of at least a million songs to users for a set monthly fee. The product offerings are generally broken down into three main buckets: PC listening only, “to go” which allows moving music to a music device, and an optional download service to allow permanent ownership of the song (with DRM) and that can be burned to a CD.

Note that none of these services work with an iPod. They all utilize Microsoft’s PlayForSure DRM technology which is not compatible with the iPod. Also, none of these services work on a Mac. You must have a Windows machine to use them, although Rhapsody has some Mac functionality.

The Music Subscription Services

Overall, the best service based on pure stats is Virgin Digital
, which boasts the largest catalog of music (2 million songs) and the best overall price at $8/month. Unlike all of the other services, Virgin charges one price for both the PC and to go versions. Virgin also has excellent additional features like user reviews of music create a social atmosphere.

All of the services require the download and use of a special player, except AOL, which uses a web based approach along with the Windows Media Player.

For the flat out cheapest price, Yahoo comes in at the lowest point with a basic plan of $5 per month (althought the to go plan is $10/month, higher than Virgin’s single price plan).

But based on pure joy of the user experience, Rhapsody has the slickest software and the most intuitive user interface. It’s the most expensive at $15/month, but worth the money if you want the best service available.

Both Google and Amazon are in the process of developing online music products, and will certainly have compelling product offerings of their own.